When the Numbers Don’t Add Up in China

A historian explores how Beijing has tackled its statistical woes over the years.

Foreign Policy
July 20, 2020
By: Melissa Chan

A Chinese bank employee counts new 50-yuan notes with a money counting machine at a bank counter in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province on August 30, 2019. STR/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Successful book launches often depend on timing, as any writer facing this season of canceled book fairs and tours will tell you. They have helplessly watched as their new releases languished, lost in the babble of pandemic press conferences and news headlines, competing for relevancy in a time of global human and economic disruption. A few authors, however, have found themselves in the opposite circumstance. Arunabh Ghosh could not have imagined how timely his book would be when he set out more than a decade ago on his research project. But Making It Count, an academic work published by Princeton University Press examining the history of statistics in China, lands at a time when the world is wondering: How does Beijing collect data, and what did it know about COVID-19 and when?

Making It Count: Statistics and Statecraft in the Early People’s Republic of China, Arunabh Ghosh, Princeton University Press, 360 pp., $45, March 2020

“The information that we got at the front end of this thing wasn’t perfect,” complained U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in March, when only about a dozen Americans had died from the disease. “It has proven incredibly frustrating to work with the Chinese Communist Party to get our hands around the data set.”

That implies Beijing had the right numbers to begin with. By U.S. intelligence agencies’ own assessments, the Chinese central government struggled with facts on the ground in the early days of the outbreak, as municipal bureaucrats in the city of Wuhan and elsewhere downplayed infection rates and death counts. Other reports simultaneously show that Beijing withheld critical medical information from the rest of the world, including to the World Health Organization. But that—as Ghosh well illustrates—is a paradox often encountered in the history of modern China: A government obsessed with numbers and information all too often lacked them in practice.    [FULL  STORY]